Written by Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio, published on June 29th, 2016
You may have figured out by now that I have concerns about the current hit music. It’s downtempo. It’s dense. The production is cluttered and noisy. It’s repetitive. The almost instant anointing of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling” as the Song of Summer 2016 shows how eager the audience is for tempo and a little sunshine. So does seeing DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” hang around after nearly a year—it’s the song that most resembles Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” in its universal appeal and durability.
Recently, however, I was looking at a radio station playlist from winter 1985. There was plenty that was draggy—Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”; Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” There were records that were busy and aggressively produced—Hall & Oates’ “Method of Modern Love” could have been one of today’s Chainsmokers records. There was Phil Collins’ “One More Night, draggy and routinely mocked for its repetition, but from an artist who was too hot to ignore.
It’s possible that winter of ’85 was the first hint that top 40’s resurgence of phenomenal mass-appeal might become a little less phenomenal. It was also possible, I had to admit, that I was guilty of choosing to remember things more fondly: the cranky old man interpretation. Was I really entitled to find today’s hit music annoying if I liked “Mickey”?
So I decided to analyze the Billboard top 10 from this day in three consecutive years:
To get a sense of how the music stacked up, I looked at tempo. I looked at repetition. I looked at whether songs were noisy or aggressive musically. I tried to determine the lyrical mood of the songs. I also looked at how many songs from each summer were still played on the radio three decades later. Then I looked at this week’s top 10 at mainstream top 40 radio.
And yes, there were significant differences. Tempo and repetition were the most noticeable ones. But in many ways that one might look at the health of available hit music, this week in 2016 doesn’t feel as broadly appealing as its predecessors.
As with any station’s current music library, coding is always subjective, especially for lyrics. “Every Breath You Take” sounds cheerful, but it’s from the viewpoint of a stalker. What is the mood of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”? Depressed, because that’s how the narrator feels about his life? Happy, because he’s grimly determined to change it? I determined that a lyric had to be consistently optimistic, even though the formula was often “bouncy music/pensive lyrics.”
This is how the three year stretch of the mid-‘80s CHR boom stacked up against each other, and against today:
Tempo (on a 1-5 scale):
1983 – 3.6
1984 – 3.9
1985 – 3.8
2016 – 3.2
None of the mid-‘80s weeks had more than one song that could be called a true ballad and coded as a “1” for tempo or energy.. This week in 1984 didn’t have any. This current week has two.
Busy/Aggressive/Noisy/Discordant Songs—as they might have sounded at the time
1983 – 2
1984 – 2
1985 – 2
2016 – 4
“Busy” doesn’t always equal obnoxious, and aggressive usually softens with time. I’ve made a point of going by what sounded “almost too hot” at the time—not now. “Things Can Only Get Better” by Howard Jones seems mild now, but had a lot of the same keyboard squawkiness of today’s hits. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds (a few months before the week we looked at) was sonically aggressive like the Billy Idol record it was intended to be, but plays on any AC station today. David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” wears better than Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” now, but both were very hot sounding records at the time, and in a similar way.
Repetitive Songs—specifically internal repetition within a line of a lyric (e.g., “don’t let me/don’t let me/don’t let me down”).
1983 – 1
1984 – 3
1985 – 3
2016 – 7
Repetition has always been there, but it was generally considered a mark of bubblegum songwriting and in the mid-‘80s, it’s usually Europop where it showed up—e.g., Laura Branigan singing “you take my self/you take my self control” or Kajagoogoo’s “too shy, shy/hush hush”. In 2016, Europop is in the DNA of most hit music and internal repetition is the norm.
The Throwback Factor – How many “retro”-sounding songs are there?
1983 – 1
1984 – 1
1985 – 1
2016 – 2
Often, pop music’s doldrums has been marked by an exceptional number of songs that looked backwards. The early ‘80s were rife with tributes to ‘50s music and Motown, although usually through a soft rock filter. (Think Paul Davis and “’65 Love Affair.”) So it’s worth noting that dance and R&B acts have been channeling the sound of ‘70s disco and early ‘80s Michael Jackson-style pop for almost as long as that era lasted.
The Happiness Factor – Are songs lyrically positive?
1983 – 5
1984 – 4
1985 – 8
2016 – 5
For what it’s worth, the summer of 1984, generally regarded to be one of the best for mass-appeal pop music was full of lyrical ambiguity and songs whose music betrayed their sentiments, or whose sentiments were too obscure to matter. “Self Control” and Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” both have the nebulous “I walk on the jagged edge of the lonely night”-type lyric that was prevalent at the time. But both still read as fun songs. In fact, “lyrically ambiguous/musically happy” is usually a pretty good formula for success.
Did Songs Endure? – Do you still hear them on the radio now
1983 – 4
1984 – 5
1985 – 4
This one is unknowable about today’s music. But, for what it’s worth, the mid-‘80s summer generally agreed to be the best of the three is also the one with the most enduring songs.
Here is one positive indicator:
The Consumer Press Factor – Was an artist a recognized superstar or just another hitmaker?
1983 – 6
1984 – 8
1985 – 5
2016 – 6
It will take years and an entire career’s output to decide whether Fifth Harmony or Twenty-One Pilots are artists for the ages, or just hot now. But Rick Springfield was part of pop culture in 1983, while Fifth Harmony is getting similar consumer press today. Both are signs of top 40’s health.
One place where I found it more difficult to code was on genre—did top 40 have a good variety of styles, especially compared to the mid-‘80s when mainstream pop/rock was still part of the mix? There are indeed fewer artists from the rock charts than in any of the three years we looked at. But even in 1984, when Prince was making rock records, while Bruce Springsteen was leaning pop, it was sometimes a specious distinction. Today, it’s typical to see acts as varied as Twenty One Pilots and Chainsmokers making the same sort of pop music. The good news is that artists are less pigeonholed. But there’s also less of a sense of stylistic variation today than there was between, say, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and Van Halen’s “Jump”—two genre bending exercises of that era (both involving Van Halen).
Here are the songs we looked at:
|1||Irene Cara||Flashdance (What A Feeling)|
|2||Culture Club||Time (Clock of the Heart)|
|3||Eddy Grant||Electric Avenue|
|4||Police||Every Breath You Take|
|5||David Bowie||Let’s Dance|
|6||Hall & Oates||Family Man|
|7||Styx||Don’t Let It End|
|8||Sergio Mendes||Never Gonna Let You Go|
|9||Rick Springfield||Affair Of The Heart|
|1||Duran Duran||The Reflex|
|2||Cyndi Lauper||Time After Time|
|3||Deniece Williams||Let’s Hear It For The Boy|
|4||Bruce Springsteen||Dancing In The Dark|
|5||Laura Branigan||Self Control|
|6||Huey Lewis & News||The Heart Of Rock ‘N’ Roll|
|7||Pointer Sisters||Jump (For My Love)|
|8||Prince||When Doves Cry|
|9||Steve Perry||Oh, Sherrie|
|10||Billy Idol||Eyes Without A Face|
|3||Tears For Fears||Everybody Wants To Rule The World|
|5||Duran Duran||A View To A Kill|
|7||Mary Jane Girls||In My House|
|8||Howard Jones||Things Can Only Get Better|
|9||Katrina & Waves||Walking On Sunshine|
|10||Survivor||The Search Is Over|
|1||Chainsmokers||Don’t Let Me Down|
|2||Justin Timberlake||Can’t Stop The Feeling|
|4||Ariana Grande||Dangerous Woman|
|5||Calvin Harris & Rihanna||This Is What You Came For|
|7||Fifth Harmony||Work From Home|
|8||Twenty One Pilots||Ride|
|9||James Bay||Let It Go|
|10||Mike Posner||I Took A Pill In Ibiza|